As the White House weighed whether to release graphic images of a slain Osama bin Laden, the world’s political cartoonists had already considered the visual question as a personal decision:
When commenting on the al-Qaeda leader’s death, just how graphic do you get?
“I was a little hesitant about drawing the blood, and I certainly didn’t want to make it really gory,” says Washington Examiner editorial cartoonist NATE BEELER, whose cartoon the day after Sunday’s fatal raid showed a small splatter of blood beneath bin Laden’s head. “It could have been drawn to look much more brutal.”
Many of the first-responder cartoonists drew bin Laden’s corpse, some tapping the visceral power of depicting viscera.
“Just like the rest of America, I had waited nearly a decade to see Osama dead, and the first cartoon was a catharsis, of sorts,” Beeler tells Comic Riffs. ”Osama has been our face if evil, and I think it’s healthy to see that image of evil vanquished.”
“The second cartoon was for the day after, so I wanted to make it contemplative,” Beeler notes of his follow-up, which shows Uncle Sam seated, hunched, on a bin Laden coffin. The one-word caption: “Closure.”
CLAY BENNETT, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, says the right tone for him, personally, was to be less graphic.
“As much as Osama bin Laden deserved what he got, reveling in the death of anyone is something that makes me feel a bit icky,” Bennett says, “so I didn’t want to produce the cartoon equivalent to the parties that occur outside a prison when some inmate is being executed.
“So, using less physical imagery to depict the event just seemed to be the right tact to take — at least for me.”
Bennett instead drew a newly released White House form: bin Laden’s death certificate.
Many of the scores of initial cartoons shared at least one of several similar approaches, settings and emblems (some even mixing and matching these choices). They included depictions of:
1. Bin Laden’s slain body — sometimes marked by blood, bullets or a toe tag.
2. Bin Laden in an afterlife of hellfire and damnation — sometimes futilely awaiting virgins.
3. Leading birther voice Donald Trump calling for bin Laden’s death certificate (at least two cartoons even invoked “The Wizard of Oz” and the “most sincerely dead” witch).
4. “Mission Accomplished” banners — sometimes even attached to bin Laden’s body. Also: nods to “Justice.”
5. Triumphant symbols of patriotism such as Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty, as well as the resonant visual power of the Twin Towers.
Especially on extreme deadline, some cartoonists say, they reached for the readiest visual metaphors.
STEVE BREEN, the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist at the San Diego Union-Tribune, chose to invoke the American eagle in an intentional echo of his 9/11 cartoons, which were so well-received nearly a decade ago. He says his newspaper ran the cartoons Tuesday on Page A6 as a “trilogy.”
“I never thought I’d do a third eagle-talon cartoon,” Breen tells Comic Riffs. “I also drew Uncle Sam ripping a photo of bin Laden in half for lack of a better idea at 11 p.m. on Sunday.
“I think for [Wednesday’s] paper,” he continues, “I will draw a smiling Statue of Liberty doing a fist pump for the cliche trifecta.”
MIKE PETERS, the Pulitzer-winning cartoonist for the Dayton Daily News, drew a series of ideas before striking upon his depiction of bin Laden in hell.
“I came to it through a bunch of sketches,” Peters tells Comic Riffs. “When you try to come up with something, you go through everything you remember about 9/11 — the cliches, the visuals.
“I was thinking about a photo of this a bagpiper I saw at Ground Zero on one of the networks,” Peters continues. “I knew cartoonists would have Osama in hell. I thought about the ‘Accomplished’ sign, the Towers.” Then, rapidly, “The Ground Zero idea for hell.”
“Being a father of five, as a rule of thumb, I usually look at my drawings and ask myself if I would be offended if my youngest children had seen it,” says RANDY BISH, cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
“I had drawn three cartoons on the subject, with two of them showing Osama,” Bish tells Comic Riffs. “One had him in a pool of blood ... nothing too gory. The other cartoon showed him surrounded by his final reward: 72 sturgeon.”
Bish also chose to draw an American eagle perched over its prey, and the caption was a whole different pun:
“Bin worth the wait.”
Here is a gallery of more bin Laden cartoons — a sampling that reflects the range of visual responses: